As societal and political forces escalate to limit access to and exercise of the ballot, eliminate the teaching of Black history, and work to push us back into the 1890s, we can only rely on our capacity to resist. The enactment of HR 40, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Breathe Act, and the closure of the racial wealth gap is not the end. They too will require us to mobilize our resources, human and material, and fight for “freedom, justice, and equality”; “self-determination”, and/or “social transformation.” (ASALH, 2023)

This year’s theme for Black History Month—Black Resistance—recognizes the increasingly bold public efforts to minimize or reverse the hard-fought rights and assets of African Americans in a culture that continually upholds the tenets of white supremacy. Whether at the ballot box, in the classroom, at the bank, in the grocery store, or at a health clinic, Black and Brown people incessantly face the interconnected, intersecting inequalities intentionally baked into systems and structures for no other reason than to exploit, curtail, and devastate their families.

As evidenced in the extensive and disparate effect of the three-year pandemic on Black and other communities of color, health and well-being remain some of the starkest indicators of how society values BIPOC children, youth, and adults. But through resistance and resilience, many communities have effectively found incremental ways to improve the social determinants of health, such as embracing ancestral traditions and healing modalities through a decolonization of thought and practice. Another way to break down barriers to medical and mental health resources is through reinforcement of federal protections and guidance to service providers.

Health and Well-Being Civil Rights

Nearly 60 years ago, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) was created to desegregate hospitals shortly after the passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and creation of the Medicare program. OCR has deep roots in enforcing federal civil rights laws that ensure nondiscrimination based on race, color, and national origin. Recent priorities of OCR in enforcing federal civil rights laws that ensure nondiscrimination include revised policy rules with the Affordable Care Act, newer service guidance with vaccine equity and access to telehealth, and promotion of reproductive health care.

Strengthening Nondiscrimination in Health Care

OCR issued a proposed rule revising Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which is one of the federal government’s most powerful tools to ensure nondiscriminatory access to health care.

“Strengthening Section 1557 supports our ongoing efforts to provide high-quality, affordable health care and to drive health equity for all people served by our programs,” said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. “This work will help eliminate avoidable differences in health outcomes experienced by those who are underserved and provide the care and support that people need to thrive” (HHS, 2022).

Additional Resource: Civil Rights for Providers of Health Care and Human Services

Ensuring Vaccine Equity

Vaccine equity is when everyone has fair and just access to COVID-19 vaccination. But there are many social, geographic, political, economic, and environmental factors that create challenges to vaccination access and acceptance, and that often affect racial and ethnic minority groups. In light of this, OCR issued guidance to providers about their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to ensure non-discrimination in administering COVID-19 vaccination programs.

Additional Resource: Best Practices in Equitable Vaccine Administration

Ensuring Equal Access to Telehealth

OCR, with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, issued guidance on nondiscrimination in using telehealth. It provides information to health care providers about their service obligations and practical tips about how to provide accessible telehealth.

Additional Resource: Health Equity in Telehealth

Promoting Reproductive Health Care

After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overruling Roe v. Wade came out, HHS launched Recognizing the high maternal mortality rate of Black women and how the Dobbs decision exacerbates these inequities and disparities, OCR issued multiple guidance documents so that health care providers understand their obligations and patients understand the protections of federal laws.

Additional Resources: Reproductive Health Care Rights and Social Current’s statement on the overruling on Roe v. Wade.

“If you’re an African-American… your risks of dying in childbirth are three to four times higher than if you’re white…. It’s not tied to income. It’s not tied to education…. It’s something about the lived experience of being African-American,” says Dr. Neel Shah, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and obstetrician/gynecologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. (ABC News, 2018)

Civil Rights Laws Are Necessary, but Not Sufficient

Despite gains from decades of legislation and policy rules to reduce discrimination and increase access to services and resources, it’s clear that health care for racial and ethnic minorities remains separate and unequal in the United States.

Health policy and legal experts acknowledge the challenges to reducing discrimination and health inequity through existing civil rights laws and consider whether enforcing more of the existing civil rights legislation could help overcome these challenges. A common conclusion is that stronger enforcement (e.g., through executive orders to strengthen enforcement of the laws and congressional action to allow private individuals to bring lawsuits against providers who might have engaged in discrimination) would improve minority health care. But this approach is limited in what it can achieve, mainly due to the challenges for underserved communities to access enough financial and legal resources required. Rather, complementary approaches outside the legal arena, such as quality improvement efforts and direct transfers of money to minority-serving providers (pay-for-performance initiatives) might prove to be more effective.

Commitment to Health and Well-Being Practice and Policy

Social Current’s commitment to a healthy and equitable society is evident in our social sector partnerships focused on bridging historical barriers and persistent challenges with contemporary solutions and best practices to end racism, inequity, and poverty. This commitment recognizes BIPOC families as the experts in what is important to realizing their full potential, as well as the importance of cross-sector approaches to advancing equity, partnering with purpose, and building on successes in improving health equity and the social determinants of health.

Here are some ways to join our work on equity, diversity, and inclusion today: 

  1. Participate in workshops, learning collaboratives, and consulting services  
  2. Connect with peers and industry experts with SPARK Exchanges  
  3. Enroll in learning opportunities on building community health and well-being 
  4. Subscribe to policy and advocacy updates 
  5. Get health equity research and resources from the Knowledge and Insights Center

People across the country will recognize Jan. 16, 2023, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, commemorating his life and legacy with days of service, marches and parades, and celebrations of Black culture.

The King Center will honor the day with its strategic theme: ‘Cultivating a Beloved Community Mindset to Transform Unjust Systems.’ “This theme defines the 2023 King holiday observance events and programming while serving as a compass for all the work we will do this upcoming calendar year and beyond. The pioneering work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated that Kingian Nonviolence (Nonviolence365™) is the sustainable solution to injustice and violence in our world, ultimately leading to the creation of the Beloved Community, where injustice ceases and love prevails.”

It is important that we take the time to remember Dr. King’s enduring fight for justice and equitable systems. We also must challenge ourselves as leaders to renew the spirit and intentionally lean into our equity journeys in ways that honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Although we have come a long way in making King’s dream a reality, we still have much work to do to create a truly equitable and inclusive society for all. As our country experiences staggering division in our ideologies and disparities in outcomes, we need to remember that we are stronger together. Though the current climate may make our vision feel elusive, we’re reminded of Dr. King’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We must embrace the discourse, have the difficult conversations, and work together to help all people thrive. Social Current is committed to serving as a convener and helping leaders conduct necessary, yet difficult, conversations. We are committed to the work that will realize our shared dream—an equitable society where all people can thrive.

Community-based organizations, which serve a critical purpose within communities and systems, can play a large role in realizing Dr. King’s dream by advancing equity within their programs, practices, and workforces. While a long-term strategy that requires dedication and commitment, building equitable workplaces is a key strategy an increasing belonging, resilience, and innovation.

In addition to resources from Social Current, these articles offer helpful suggestions for advancing equity in the workplace:

How We Can Support Your Equity Journey

Social Current’s SPARK 2023 conference will focus on critical topics including EDI, belonging, and justice. Save the date to join us Oct. 16-17 in Bethesda, Maryland. If you’d like to share your expertise, submit a workshop proposal by Jan. 27.

Social Current’s experts help leaders advance their equity journeys and embed equitable practices and strategies at the organizational and systems level. In addition to focused equity, diversity, and Inclusion consulting, our workforce resilience consulting is rooted in equity and psychological safety. Our Jan. 24 webinar will give an overview of four cores strategies for workforce resilience.

In a statement from Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO of Social Current, she commented on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade:

“While many reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years of precedent have illuminated our nation’s political divide, our concerns focus squarely on the impact this decision will have on equitable access to health care, which fosters the health and well-being of all people in our nation.

Prior to the trigger laws going into effect across numerous states, the U.S. already had the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries. Researchers point to our nation’s relatively low numbers of maternity care providers and comprehensive health care, including postpartum supports, as the cause.

Then consider the multiplying effect on communities of color. A study just this week from Duke University suggests a total ban on abortions could increase maternal deaths among Black women by 33%.

Some 26 states are expected to pass some form of abortion restriction, many not even offering exemptions for the life of the mother, rape, or incest. These statewide bans will disproportionately affect the health and well-being of women of color who already face disparities in health care access and outcomes.

These states also lack significant resources to support pregnant people, including access to affordable health care services, childcare services, behavioral health care, and paid family leave.

Studies also show a link between lack of access to abortion and poverty. The Turnaway Study followed women for a decade and found that those denied an abortion were four times as likely to be living in poverty years later, and that trend continued to impact their children. For people living in poverty, this ruling represents a glass ceiling of economic disparities they may never overcome.

We can see the looming future of generations of people being forced to carry pregnancies resulting from rape or incest to term and the impact of that on their emotional well-being. We see generation upon generation of adolescents and young people facing mandated births without adequate resources to lift themselves out of poverty. We see a future of greater divides across America—not political divides but a division of haves and have nots, as only families of means will have the ability to travel across states or to other countries to access safe abortions and reproductive health care services. And we see a potential future of more erosion of rights, as other rulings linked to Roe v. Wade that protect access to contraception and same-sex marriage are challenged and possibly eroded.

We work at the nexus of community and government to support policies that advance equity, improve health and well-being, and increase economic opportunity and mobility so all people can thrive. This Supreme Court ruling strips away the fundamental rights that provide equitable access to health and economic opportunity. It is a setback for our whole society and we pledge to work across our sector and across our nation to ameliorate its impacts and support the right of all people to have self-determination in the most critical and life-changing decisions that impact their health, their families and their lives.”

The views expressed by Social Current are grounded in and aligned with our mission, vision, values, and policy agenda principles and do not necessarily reflect those of our entire network. 

2022 will mark just the second year Juneteenth is recognized as a federal holiday. Given the latency of many to commemorate the ending of slavery in the U.S., companies are now struggling to appropriately recognize the holiday, which encapsulates both joy and pain. While there are some meaningful observances planned, some organizations may be silent.

“While many organizations are now closing their offices for Juneteenth, it’s not enough. Leaders should be assessing their organizations and looking for how they can support their employees and communities in more substantive ways that meaningfully address inequities,” said Undraye Howard, vice president of equity, diversity, inclusion, and engagement at Social Current.

It’s no secret that employers across the country – and across industries – are currently struggling to support the mental health and well-being of their employees. Organizations in the social sector are certainly feeling the constraints of escalating \costs and rising needs for services, coupled with the pressures to invest in and retain employees.

Today, we are faced with many new and longstanding challenges to workforce resilience. The ongoing stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges around advancing inclusion and equity, and secondary stress that some staff experience on a regular basis are a few of the many obstacles to creating a positive staff culture, which is the core of a resilient organization.

A recent post on the CompassPoints blog puts it candidly, “We need to talk about how tired folks are. After the last two years, it seems like everyone is feeling the strain of burnout in a deep and long-lasting way. For many Black leaders and leaders of color, the demands to support their communities through turbulent times, keep organizations running, and tend to life amidst multiple crises has taken an especially heavy toll.”

Recent research from the Building Movement Project validates this assessment. Their report, Trading Glass Ceilings for Glass Cliffs: A Race to Lead Report on Nonprofit Executives of Color, explores the added burdens facing leaders of identity-based organizations, the challenges that BIPOC leaders encounter when taking over leadership from white predecessors, and the common realities of being a leader of color in the nonprofit sector. The report found:

  1. Leaders of color need supports, not more training.
  2. Leaders of color take on added burdens, without additional compensation.
  3. Leaders of identity-based organizations face distinct demands.
  4. Unique challenges come with taking over leadership from white predecessors.
  5. Too few white leaders factor race equity into their succession plans.

“It is clear that people of color face additional barriers and burdens in the workplace and it is up to us, collectively, to advance equity at the person, organization, and systems levels,” said Howard. “It is critical that we not only recruit and hire people of color but that we create workplace cultures that ensure they are supported, feel valued, and can bring their ‘whole selves’ to work each day.”

Embedding Equity in Your Workforce

Organizations must partner with staff and prioritize advancing equity as core to how they look to advance workforce resilience. By building self-awareness, psychological safety, and a shared accountability, organizations will foster the beginnings of both workforce resilience and a culture enriched by equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

“Nurturing a positive and supportive culture that aligns with our values does not happen overnight. Learning and building capacity around the concepts and interconnected strategies for EDI and workforce resilience, developing individualized plans, and putting plans into action and course correcting along the way is the surest way to make progress toward their goals,” said Karen Johnson, director of the Social Current Change in Mind Institute. “This work requires us to be innovative, curious and courageous, but it is doable, and our workforce is worth the investment.”  

For leaders looking to partner with staff to improve their workforce cultures and increase well-being and job satisfaction, Social Current is now offering participation in a yearlong learning collaborative. This unique opportunity will provide sustained support and connection through a cohort with others working to advance similar goals.

EDI is at the core of this learning collaborative’s curriculum, which will advance understanding of brain science, build psychological safety, prioritize positive workforce culture, and increase connection. And in addition to this workforce resilience learning collaborative, Social Current is also offering a learning collaborative fully dedicated to advancing equity, with applications due June 30.

For organizations that are looking to move quickly into action, Social Current’s three-part virtual workshops lay the foundation for building an EDI-enriched organization and offer dedicated worktime for building an EDI action plan with the help of experienced facilitators. This workshop is ideal for investing in your EDI taskforce or other staff leading equity efforts.

Advancing equity takes sustained commitment from leaders and organizations and at the same time, needs to begin somewhere. This Juneteenth, affirm your commitment to your workforce and advancing EDI.

While there are many ways to build your organization’s capacity for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), they all require an overarching commitment and investment. With limited resources and many priorities, some may wonder if there is really a tangible ROI to EDI efforts.

Well, just look at the data.

Research compiled by the Performance Excellence Network shows that investing your organization’s time and resources in EDI strategies can support your business, in addition to your mission. Highlights from that research include:

So now what?

To ensure that your investment leads to real change at your organization, make sure you receive the right level of support you need. One unique opportunity that can help you build and sustain momentum toward your goals is our upcoming EDI Learning Collaborative. Participants will collaborate with peers at other organizations in a supportive environment and receive guidance from EDI experts in developing, implementing, and advancing their equity work. This collaborative offers continual support over a 15-month period.

Apply by submitting the online application by June 30.

Our three-part virtual workshop offers learning and support to participants over the course of a month. It combines valuable information, facilitated discussions, reflection opportunities, and focused work time to begin developing an EDI action plan. We recommend sending multiple staff who serve on your EDI committee or advance EDI in other ways. This workshop will provide the tools, guidance, and dedicated time they need to be successful. 

Register now for our upcoming June session (June 9, 16, and 23). Additional sessions are being offered in September/October and November.

In March, Social Work Month is often observed by highlighting the positive impact of social work and social welfare on people’s lives and in their communities, including a history of promoting social justice, civil rights, and more societal change efforts. It’s also important to acknowledge the whitewashing of social work history, like the National Association of Social Workers did by apologizing for racist practices in past and current social work.

The historic harm created by social work is minimized in the history that is taught about the field. Concurrently, the contributions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) social workers are often overlooked or excluded in this history. These omissions center whiteness into social work education and practice and perpetuate the myth that BIPOC people are mostly passive and the users of a majority of services, while white social workers are the innovators and heroes who provide those services.

In reconsidering history, we must acknowledge the role of social work in perpetuating racist systems and beliefs in order to make amends and cease doing unintentional harm. Likewise, we must educate ourselves as a field about the contributions of BIPOC founders and community leaders in the development and positive gains of social work.

The Colors of Privilege and Inequity

Social workers are often heralded as change agents, problem solvers, critical thinkers, facilitators, advocates, counselors, clinicians, organizers, and activists. But what happens when social work as a field causes harm? It’s important to first acknowledge that the systems everyone relies on for access, well-being, and the ability to thrive reflect the dominant white culture and the privilege it affords for some and not others. As a result, it is difficult for white social workers to partner authentically in a trauma-informed manner with BIPOC community members who try to navigate those unbalanced and inequitable systems.

When the modern field of social work was in its formation in the 1800s, it predominately signified neo-American, European, and Middle Eastern beliefs and values. Individuals and communities with other cultures were labeled “primitive,” and their existing practices of social support were ignored or appropriated. Social work arose at the same time that so-called “racial sciences” were attempting to prove that Black people were deficient compared to white people. Social welfare workers were responsible for determining who was worthy of help and capable of change. Racialist theories also intersected with emerging social welfare policies to establish a racialization of poverty. White people were considered victims of circumstances who could be educated and helped. Black people and other cultural groups were labeled as inherently inferior and needed to be “saved” from their culture.

When social work practices from BIPOC groups were adopted in the wider field, the white social workers who introduced the ideas were celebrated as “innovators” while the originators of the practice were largely ignored. Black people were strategically excluded from areas where decisions were being made that affected them, including the development of social welfare and juvenile justice policies.

Social workers have also actively participated in numerous racist practices, such as the Indigenous children’s residential schools, segregated settlement houses, involvement in eugenics theories, propagation of the Tuskegee experiment, participation in intake teams at Japanese internment camps, and more. The intersection between white supremacy and social work amplified power differentials that were already present in many of the practices for the “social good.” White women were considered heroic for sacrificing part of their white privilege to their social service efforts, while Black leaders risked their lives and safety advocating for change in their communities.

Seeing All Shades: Past, Present, and Future

Today, there are many professional groups and educational efforts focused on achieving social justice and equity for BIPOC communities, such as for Indigenous Peoples in ways that respect their ancient cultures and sovereign rights and enhance the quality of life for people of African ancestry through advocacy, human services delivery, and research. Yet much of social work education continues to downplay or omit the contributions of BIPOC leaders, early community builders, and activists. This undermines important contributions in the social work profession and perpetuates the myth of white saviorism and supremacy.

This social work month, let us not simply reflect on those who sacrificed a small part of their privilege in the name of helping communities. Rather, we should unite the dominant historical legacies with the contributions and innovations of our BIPOC colleagues and founders. It is the duty of each social worker to ensure that they are educated on the history of the profession from diverse cultural perspectives—this is how to address and make amends for the harm that our profession has done. We must address the generational trauma caused to those we partner with and learn to challenge the institutional racism that continues to create additional barriers for BIPOC community members.

Learn More

Whitewashing in social work and how to challenge it:

Historical perspectives on harm and how to do better (video collection):

A legacy of influential BIPOC social workers:

Every person, family, and community is more likely to achieve their full potential when they have a strong foundation that enables them to weather life’s challenges and thrive, no matter their current situation, socioeconomic status, or geographic location. These building blocks are essential for creating and sustaining the well-being of every family and community:

Building the Essentials of Financial Well-Being

Because so many of these building blocks are tied to financial well-being and opportunity, Social Current has collaborated with the Washington University Brown School’s Center for Social Development (CSD) and its partners to publish new research in Social Current’s peer-reviewed journal, Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. In recognition of Black History Month, the issue is freely accessible without a subscription through February 2022.

The special issue, Building Financial Capability and Assets in America’s Families, was guest edited by Jin Huang, Margaret Sherraden, Jenny Jones, and Christine Callahan. Articles were developed from presentations made at a national conference hosted at CSD and the Financial Social Work Initiative at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

“We began this project to develop a better understanding of how financial well-being has become elusive for families,” explained Margaret Sherraden, a research professor in the Brown School at Washington University and a faculty lead of CSD’s Financial Capability and Asset Building (FCAB) initiative.

Many families and communities, especially communities of color, face hurdles that they alone did not create or control that obstruct their ability to flourish. “Counteracting multigenerational disparities and trauma resulting from systemic racism and oppression requires intentional interventions aimed at addressing root causes. Otherwise, those conditions may be insurmountable and will impede social change and justice that can benefit all Americans,” according to Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO of Social Current.

Helping Families Overcome Barriers

For families in crisis, guidance from community-based organizations and social services professionals can be critically important. “Financial and economic issues underlie many of the problems that bring families to social services,” the editors write in the issue introduction. “Intake interviews … often reveal insufficient income and assets, overwhelming debt, lack of emergency savings, limited access to public benefits and social assistance, challenges obtaining a bank account or credit, and worries about their future financial well-being.”

Jin Huang, professor of social work at Saint Louis University and a faculty lead of CSD’s FCAB initiative, noted takeaways: “This collection shows that families who bring financial struggles to social workers can find guidance on operating in an increasingly financialized society and on improving financial security. It also shows that those outcomes – financial capability and financial security – require a broader framework of supportive programming and sound policies.”

Building Financial Knowledge in Social Services

As dean of the Whitney Young Jr. School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, Jenny Jones brought to the project her insights from training students for financial capability practice. “I began incorporating financial content into social work classes to introduce students to issues related to families that are referred to social service agencies for various services,” Jones said. “Students embraced the skills when they saw how pivotal these issues are in the lives of their clients.”

Christine Callahan, research associate professor with the University of Maryland’s Financial Social Work Initiative, also came to the project through her efforts to develop social workers’ capacity for guiding clients in their financial struggles. “Social workers recognize that a better understanding of financial matters and addressing financial distress to a greater degree would enhance their work with individuals, couples, and families who often are dealing with complex, intertwined psychosocial and financial problems and stressors.”

Advancing Equity and Economic Freedom

It’s clear that all people need to be supported by families, who in turn fuel vibrant communities and economies. “Families and communities today are experiencing both acute and persistent needs that are varied and interconnected. That’s why it’s so critical that solutions focused on building well-being are evidence-informed, diverse, and cross-cutting through the lens of advancing equity,” notes Undraye Howard, senior director and special advisor to the CEO on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Engagement at Social Current.

More practice and policy innovations, training and education, and research are necessary to ensure that all families—and particularly families of color with added burdens resulting from America’s long history of systemic racism and a culture of white supremacy—have the “opportunity to generate new collective narratives of genuine economic freedom where they can realize their hopes and capabilities” as envisioned in the essay by Devin Fergus and Trina Shanks.

Special Issue Articles

Articles in this issue can be accessed through Black History Month 2022 without a subscription.

Guest Editors

Christine Callahan

Jenny L. Jones

Jin Huang

Margaret Sherraden

A new white paper has been released by the Vaccine Equity Cooperative, whose members include Social Current, Partners In Health, National Association of Community Health Workers, and Health Leads. It provides recommendations based on lessons learned from the collaborating organizations’ shared experiences at the local, state, and federal levels in responding to COVID-19 and in addressing health disparities in communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated underlying inequities in the U.S. health care system, disproportionately affecting communities of color. Those inequities make it clear that the U.S. needs systemic investment in public and community health systems—focused on serving the most marginalized individuals and communities.

The newly released white paper provides a roadmap by focusing on four key pillars of health equity that reflect the challenges faced by implementers during the COVID-19 response:

By ensuring our approaches include improved access to care, strong data systems, a shift in decision-making power, and access to resources, communities in the U.S. will be able to build a more equitable health care system.

Download the white paper online.

About the Vaccine Equity Cooperative

In fall 2020, Health Leads, NACHW, Partners In Health, and Social Current, came together to form the Vaccine Equity Cooperative to share trusted resources, expand funding, and strengthen policy in support of community-based and public health workforces. This initiative, a collaborative approach to addressing structural barriers and building vaccine confidence, aims to further support the rebuilding of public trust necessary to address long-term disparities and prepare for future crises.

Learn more about the Vaccine Equity Cooperative and how to get involved online.

Social Current Resources on Health Equity

Here are some ways to join our work on equity, diversity, and inclusion today:

Social Current recently published Building Financial Capability and Assets in America’s Families, a special issue of its venerable social work research journal, Families in Society, and will be free to view for the month of February. The issue explores the history and current developments in financial capability and asset building for families, and the authors originally presented these papers at a national conference, Financial Capability and Asset Building: Achievements, Challenges, and Next Steps.

The contributions examine various ways practitioners and other professionals who work in community-based organizations can increase families’ financial abilities, as well as approaches to expanding financial and economic opportunities. It also explores policies and programs that increase family assets so that they can respond to emergencies, offset debt, and build a more hopeful future. Find links to the special issue under Latest Articles.

A historian, Devin Fergus, and a social work scholar, Trina William Shanks, set the stage for this special issue. They discuss the historical roots of financial exclusion and wealth inequality and make the case that it is imperative to understand our history of racial capitalism that has kept tangible economic progress out of reach for Black families. They call for human services professionals to address the resulting collective historical memories and family stress, and to organize for a “successful and final Reconstruction” that generates “genuine economic freedom” where Black families can realize their hopes and capabilities. The following is an excerpt from their article, “The Long Afterlife of Slavery in Asset Stripping, Historical Memory, and Family Burden: Toward a Third Reconstruction.”

Watch the opening plenary by Devin Fergus and Trina Shanks for the “Financial Capability and Asset Building: Achievements, Challenges, and Next Steps” conference.

The Next Reconstruction

For African Americans in particular, the question of financial capability and asset building is as old as Black freedom. With the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, slavery officially ended in the United States, and the 4 million formerly enslaved persons had to find a way to survive under changing social and economic conditions. As they formed families and strived to make a living, Reconstruction Era policies were supposed to help with this transition. There were many false starts where expectations were raised, but then hopes were subsequently dashed when reality produced outcomes that kept tangible economic progress just out of reach.

Today, unlike a century ago, asset-building seems less about racial exclusion than the higher costs of financial inclusion for Blacks and other historically disfranchised groups—as racialized credit rationing has made its return to the American mortgage market. Though, in other ways, the high costs of financial inclusion may just represent the most recent form of wealth extraction—one with echoes of white-collar criminality transferring financial resources from communities of color with a history as old as Black freedom itself. This is the current world in which we now occupy. The afterlife of slavery continues to be fraught with inequality for Black Americans.

Racial Capitalism and Historical Inequities

There is a long history of what scholars of racial capitalism have dubbed the “disappointments with freedom” since slavery (Leroy, 2021). The gaps between the promises of the Freedman’s Bank, Homestead Act (or final legislative backing of “40 acres and a mule”), GI Bill, Fair Housing Act, and the racial realities that came afterward has certainly contributed to Black America’s resentment toward government and distrust of banks. The experience of broken promises and institutionalized racism repeated over time and across generations has resulted in unnecessary family stress and collective narratives that might lead Black Americans to reject certain financial practices or investments.

The larger macro-economic cycles described in racial capitalism along with specific historical events can shape shared narratives where residential segregation and structural racism are perceived as “just the way things are.” Furthermore, as Black families face the financial strain of struggling to survive with low income and low wealth in under-resourced communities, their children may also struggle to attain economic mobility. Thus, historical inequities are sustained in current generations. Of course, it is possible for narratives to change and for people to find support or opportunity in places where it didn’t exist in the past.

A Third Reconstruction of Black Economic Freedom

But if the First Reconstruction (ca. 1865–1877) and the Second Reconstruction (ca. 1954–1968) largely drew upon federal activism, often pressured from below, what might a Third Reconstruction entail? Perhaps the rise of Black Lives Matter and calls for reparations could bring the country closer to realizing the Black freedom that fell short in earlier eras. This new moment would necessarily include similar legislative actions, court rulings, and policy choices emanating from these previous eras of reconstruction. A new reconstruction is imperative to fulfill the promise of Black economic freedom that has never been widely attained. This third reconstruction would build upon the previous two iterations foregrounding voting, civil rights, and financial enforcement. However, the real test is whether economic security increases for the majority of Black households. Surface level changes that reproduce racial disparities are no longer acceptable.

A successful and final reconstruction would mean Black families face less economic stress (and certainly no more than anyone else) and comprise communities that have had the opportunity to generate new collective narratives of genuine economic freedom where they can realize their hopes and capabilities. There are implications for practice that could help herald such a Third Reconstruction. Community-based organizations can organize to help people learn lessons from the past and build Black power. The Grand Challenges for Social Work are one potential example for this type of collective action as they support efforts to eliminate racism, reduce extreme economic inequality, and build financial capability and assets for all.

Community-based practitioners can also point out racial inequities in current policies and practices as well as fight for more robust and inclusive policies. At the individual level, practitioners can be trained in financial counseling or coaching and work to ensure these services are relevant for Blacks and other populations that aren’t being well served by current financial systems. To be most effective, practitioners would have to address the collective memories and residue of financial strain that stresses family ties to encourage these underserved populations to trust a financial system that has betrayed them for generations.

About the Authors

Devin Fergus

Arvarh E. Strickland Distinguished Professor of History and Black Studies
College of Arts and Science
University of Missouri

Trina R. Shanks

Director of the Center for Equitable Family and Community Well-Being
Harold R. Johnson Collegiate Professor of Social Work
University of Michigan School of Social Work

Take Action

Social Current recognizes Black History Month as a time to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements, accomplishments, and contributions from the many African Americans today and in the past. Our history has been enriched by these heroes, who have given so much and, in some cases, sacrificed their lives, for the same reasons that we commit to advancing justice, equity, and freedom. We also want to acknowledge the injustices and racism in this present time. As leaders, we will stay committed to the efforts that will eventually result in an equitable society for all people. This month, and every day, it is important to recognize the many contributions that have led to what we define as freedom.

—Jody Levison-Johnson, president and CEO, Social Current

A Focus on Health and Wellness

The theme for Black History Month 2022 is centered on the importance of Black Health and Wellness. Part of this focus acknowledges the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, as well as other ways of knowing (e.g., birthworkers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora. This year’s theme also stresses the continuing impact of disparities in the social determinants of health for BIPOC individuals and their communities.

In the still overhanging shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black people should and do use data and other information-sharing modalities to document, decry, and agitate against the interconnected, intersecting inequalities intentionally baked into systems and structures in the U.S. for no other reason than to curtail, circumscribe, and destroy Black well-being in all forms and Black lives. Moreover, Black communities must look to the past to provide the light for our future, by embracing the rituals, traditions and healing modalities of our ancestors. These ways of knowing require a decolonization of thought and practice.

Association for the Study of African American Life and History

As part of Social Current’s commitment to a healthy and equitable society, we and our partners in the social sector work to bridge historical barriers and persistent challenges with contemporary solutions and best practices to end racism, inequity, and poverty. This commitment recognizes BIPOC families as the experts in what is important to realizing their full potential, as well as the importance of cross-sector approaches to advancing equity, partnering with purpose, and building on successes in improving the social determinants of health.

Pathways for Change

Social Current collaborates with the Morehouse School of Medicine and other social sector organizations in mobilizing community-based organizations through the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network (NCRN). This initiative is focused on mitigating the negative impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minority and American Indian and Alaska Native communities that are disproportionately impacted through disseminating culturally and linguistically relevant resources to the hardest hit communities.

We are also collaborating with Unite Us, the nation’s leading technology company connecting health and social care services, to advance health equity and improve health and social outcomes through innovation and technology. This relationship will enable Social Current and Unite Us to work together to make positive change in communities across the country.

The foundation of these partnerships and other health equity initiatives is the shared understanding that families caught in entrenched poverty caused by institutional racism can benefit from multigenerational approaches to family and community success, along with collective action to gain access to the resources and supports necessary for well-being. These evidence-based approaches are evident in:

Building on Strengths: Learning and Engagement Opportunities

Raising up Black children, mothers, fathers, and their family members advances society as a whole. Throughout the month, Social Current will highlight Black voices and stories, focus on strengths-based and collaborative socioeconomic mobility solutions, share emerging research and best practices, and extend opportunities for learning and action.

Here are some ways to join our work on equity, diversity, and inclusion today:

  1. Participate in workshops, learning collaboratives, and consulting services
  2. Connect with peers and industry experts with SPARK Exchanges (formerly APEX Groups) (Sign up now for the Feb. 8 orientation webinar)
  3. Enroll in courses focused on building community health and well-being
  4. Subscribe to policy and advocacy updates
  5. Sign up for the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network’s pandemic response updates
  6. Browse the Knowledge and Insights Center (formerly Alliance Library) for Black health and wellness research and resources (Social Current network exclusive) – each week will feature a specific topic:
    • Week 1: Highlighting the innovation and progress of Black scholars, medical practitioners, birthworkers, doulas, midwives, and others
    • Week 2: Initiatives to help decrease health disparities
    • Week 3: Preventive care and focus on body positivity, physical exercise, nutrition, etc.
    • Week 4: Emotional and mental health advances in research and best practices